'Birth dearth' worries pale in comparison to overpopulation
Water and food shortages present larger challenges than economic woes linked to a declining population, says author.
Forty years ago, "The Population Bomb" by biological scientist Paul Ehrlich was published.Skip to next paragraph
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At the time, the book caused a considerable stir with its warning that overpopulation could put the future of civilization in grave doubt.
Lately, though, a "baby gap," a "birth dearth," a "population bust" have been popular topics. That's primarily an issue for Western Europe and Japan, prosperous regions where women don't have enough babies to maintain population in the long run. Russia, with widespread health problems and alcoholism, and relatively low life expectancy, finds its population shrinking by 700,000 people each year. Germany's population is falling about 100,000 a year.
In fact, the birth rate in 25 developing countries stands at or below the replacement level. Around the world, birthrates have plunged from 6 per mother in 1972 to about 2.9 today. Mr. Ehrlich pins this downward trend on government-sponsored education (especially of women), new job opportunities for women, new availability of contraceptive information and material, and the higher economic cost of large families.
Some economists suggest a declining population can lead to labor shortages, a weaker tax base, fewer customers for business, and a shaky pension system.
To Ehrlich, though, such problems are far less serious than those rising from the current population "bomb." He would like to see the world's population drop voluntarily over many decades to about 1.5 billion to 2 billion, a number that he reckons is sustainable. It would allow people both to live in big cities with their cultural advantages or with nature, as they prefer.
Ehrlich's "Bomb" book led some conservatives to worry about an increased government role in limiting family size. A survey of 15 conservative scholars in 2005 by Human Events magazine ranked his book No. 11 on a list of the "most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries." No. 1 was "The Communist Manifesto" by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Others in the Top 10 included Hitler's "Mein Kampf," "Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung," and Alfred Kinsey's "The Kinsey Report."
Today, with 2 million copies of his book sold, Ehrlich remains somewhat puzzled why some conservatives would see his book as so damaging since it didn't advocate a drastic government role. "I don't get it," he says in an interview.
At the time of publication of the "Bomb," the number of people on Earth was about 3.5 billion people. Today there are nearly twice as many, 6.7 billion, and headed toward 9 billion by 2050, perhaps more after that.